With the war in Europe raging, the two most talked up movies of 1915-16 were Vitagraph director J. Stuart Blackton’s pro-war The Battle Cry of Peace and Tom Ince’s anti-war Civilization. Positioned as political counterpoints to one another, they commandeered box office coffers around the country while instigating debate over isolationist America’s possible involvement in what was still considered a foreign conflict. The Battle Cry of Peace was adapted from munitions manufacturer Hudson Maxim’s Defenseless America with the covert intention of boosting his weapons sales.
By all accounts rabid, reactionary pro-war propaganda, it depicted the sacrilegious sight of the Capitol destroyed (for the first of many times on screen) by the exploding shells of nameless enemy forces that have overrun the unarmed nation. Ince’s pacifist Civilization on the other hand, which had the soul of Christ returning to earth to plead for peace, love and understanding proved so popular it was credited with winning President Wilson his re-election campaign on the platform ‘he kept us out of war.’ Both films represented political extremes and given the country was still pretty evenly divided between hawks and doves at the time, I think Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat would have benefited from the split vote by being embossed Best Picture. Comparatively modest by contrast, The Cheat is about a Japanese ivory trader (Sessue Hayakawa) who extends loans to cover Red Cross funds embezzled by a society woman (Fannie Ward), then brands her when she refuses his exorbitant demands for repayment. Elevated by DeMille’s artistic handling, the salacious melodrama was regarded highly enough to become the first film to be adapted into both a novel and grand opera. Such gratifying evidence that cinema was gaining the prestige to inspire the higher arts would have decided any swing votes in the Academy’s awarding body. Graced with a polished performance by Hayakawa and advanced set designs which take full advantage of DeMille’s dramatic, chiaroscuro lighting effects, The Cheat remains a striking accomplishment for its day. But for the sheer explosive charge of high powered melodrama, no other movie of 1915-16 could compete with Hell’s Hinges, William S. Hart’s classic Western about a war of a different sort – Armageddon between the forces of heaven and hell.
Weak-willed Eastern preacher Robert Henley (Jack Standing) is appointed to a frontier town out West in the interest of distancing him from the easy temptations of city life. Accompanied by his sister Faith (Clara Williams), the two are shocked upon arrival to find Hell’s Hinges overrun by the lawless element led by saloon keeper Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth). Miller’s right hand man, gunslinger Blaze Tracey (William S. Hart) intends to run the new minister out of town but upon clapping eyes on Faith, experiences a change of heart. When the rowdy saloon patrons burst into Sunday Service to take the place apart, Blaze steps in, making them show some respect. Staying to listen to the sermon, he is unmoved by Henley’s fire and brimstone bible thumping, but converted by Faith’s sincere words of love and compassion.
Under her tutelage, he swears off drink and gambling, begins studying scripture and helps in constructing a new church. With Blaze enforcing an unsteady truce between the God-fearing townsfolk and the lawless saloon element, Silk enlists a barroom floozy, Dolly (Louise Glaum), to seduce the minister in order to show him up for a hypocrite in front of his flock. Though Henley succumbs to Dolly’s charms, his congregation refuses to lose faith, carrying on without him. Beyond the pale now, Henley leads a town mob in burning down his own church, and though mortally wounded in the resulting conflict, his parishioners are put to route, fleeing into the desert. Learning that Faith was left behind with her brother’s body, an incensed Blaze returns to town determined to wipe it off the map.
Released during the 1915-16 season, Hell’s Hinges is the best of Hart’s early Westerns and as such, the most impressive American film produced in that interim period between the art defining bookends of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Clocking in at just under an hour this stark, spare film still manages to evince a powerfully visceral wallop as it sears across the screen, scorching it like the finger of the almighty. Accumulating in dramatic force as it barrels along, in its superlative direction, writing, casting, cinematography, editing and effects Hell’s Hinges stands as a considerable achievement, and the finest collaboration of one of the most industrious film crews then working in pictures. As Joe Franklin notes in his Classics of the Silent Screen, “Hart, his assistant, Cliff Smith, his writer, C. Gardner Sullivan, and cameraman Joe August… were one of the sturdiest (and least recognized) teams of craftsmen the cinema ever produced.” So among them Hell’s Hinges should have racked up a whole mess of Oscars.
The film benefits tremendously from the forceful, hard-hitting story by Sullivan, the most talented of the early American screenwriters, whose lean scenarios always packed a potent wallop, being chalk full of stark irony and contrasts, with generally tragic resolutions that belied the clichéd, happy Hollywood ending. And according to George Fenin and William K. Everson in The Western, Hell’s Hinges is one of the best samplings of “Sullivan’s really strong screenplays. In later years, (it) would’ve been classified as a ‘psychological’ western; in 1916, all the red meat was there, free of any murky undertones.”
Long before such directors as Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher began making moody genre pieces, tinged with neurotic undercurrents in the post-WW2 era, William S. Hart vehicles were considered American cinema’s “first ‘adult’ westerns” (Franklin 177). Hell’s Hinges’ terse scenario for instance draws a fascinating parallel between the simultaneous moral reformation of bad man Blaze and the spiritual downfall of the good reverend Henley, the man killer’s pious conversion counteracted by the man of God’s descent into hell. If turnabout is fair play then this balances the scales, the two switching sides midstream, as if subtly passing personalities one to the other. Hell’s Hinges is an in-between place where people, exercising the free will God grants to all men can swing either way, much like saloon doors, choosing to follow the path of righteousness or succumb to temptation. As the title implies, it’s the very hinges of hell, a gateway opening onto eternal damnation, presided over by a satanic figure in Silk Miller, who revels in his attempts to corrupt the seemingly upstanding and morally unassailable parson. Locking horns, it’s Blaze, initially a diabolic minion who will become the agent of divine wrath by film’s end, while the reverend will become a tool of dark forces. When Hart first ventured into films, the Western was in one of its periodic slumps. Indeed it was the glut of crudely artificial burlesque Westerns then flooding the market which had fired his imagination, inducing him to try his hand at movies. Hart’s intention was to capture the authentic West of his boyhood, in a way no other director yet had on screen. Contracting with old friend Tom Ince, it was fortuitous that Hart should have been brought to movies under that producer’s creative guidance, since their ideas on Westerns so closely dovetailed. Ince himself had introduced a heightened degree of authenticity to the genre by leasing the entire Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch and Wild West Show for his ambitious shorts, renowned for their pared down austerity and gritty, rough-hewn realism, all qualities Hart would strive for in his own films. But while Hart endeavored to show the real West as he believed it to have been, as with most people’s childhood, his youthful reminiscences were clouded by a sense of nostalgia, rendered with rose-colored artistic license. As Franklin points out, Hart brought both “realism and a rugged poetry to the horse opera,” determined, as Jeanine Basinger notes in Silent Stars (183) to make his somber portraits of the dusty Old west “a cinematic equivalent of (Frederic) Remington paintings and the drawings of Charles Russell.” The peerless cinematography of Joe August was one of the primary reasons Hart’s vehicles were placed in the class of fine art. The pioneering cameraman would continue making movies far into the ‘40s, shooting several classics for Western legend John Ford, and here gives every indication of the high standard he would bring to his later work.
As pointed out by Everson in American Silent Film, Hart’s movies helped to elevate the function of titling to an art form, and many of Hell’s Hinges’ captions are set against decorative art backgrounds rather than the functionally utilitarian white on black lettering that sufficed for dialogue exchanges at the time. His Blaze Tracey is a man of few words, but when he does have something to say it emerges in colorfully vivid subtitles that are either flowery flights of purple fancy, or in the atmospheric dialect of the town itself. Punctuated with regional colloquialisms they’re riddled with the sort of clipped speak found in the dime novels which inspired such early Westerns.
The film is expertly cast with future Oscar-worthies Jean Hersholt and John Gilbert, still among the extra ranks at the time. While Hersholt is hard to spot, Gilbert frequently maneuvers himself to the center of the action, figuring prominently in many crowd scenes. Louise Glaum who plays Dolly, would carve a unique niche for herself in the teens as dance hall divas, frontier floozies and saloon sirens in many Hart Westerns, customizing the vamp concept by stamping it with her own personal brand.
For Hell’s Hart built an impressive, full-scale re-creation of a dusty ‘wild’ west frontier town just to burn it all down for the fiery finish. This ramshackle scattering of plank wood structures, decorated with woodsy steer horns and animal skins, is just a tinderbox, dry kindling to feed the coming fire. Of all those evocatively named frontier towns littering Hart Westerns (Bakeoven, Dry Gulch, Yellow Dog), this irredeemably depraved city of sin must take pride of place. Hell’s is a rough and tumble Babylon from which even “the face of God seemed turned away” in shame. A town that is, Tombstone-like, too tough to die, Hell’s Hinges’ very name is derived honestly, the sweltering, ‘sun-baked territory’ on which it stands seeming a sizzling prelude to the fiery roast toward which it’s careening.
Situated on a dry patch of dusty earth in the midst of an arid desert, Hell’s Hinges may be the final outpost on the Western frontier, unclaimed virgin territory contested over by the forces of good and evil, both of whom want to stake their claim. It’s so remote here at the ends of the earth that the long arm of civilization, in the form of institutionalized religion, hasn’t yet managed to take hold. So like many Westerns, Hell’s Hinges has to do with the elemental clash between the primal, ruggedly savage, primitive West and encroaching civilization which threatens it, represented here by the churchgoing ‘petticoat brigade.’
As in My Darling Clementine and other Western classics, laying the foundations of the church suggests the roots of those civilizing forces digging in and taking root, which the wilder element want to weed out before they spread, curbing their hedonism. The construction of this bellwether proves a communal affair, its own form of barn raising to drown out the offensive hell raising of the wicked town residents. The skeletal church structure, spiraling majestically toward heaven, soon displaces the saloon in dominating the town’s skyline.
With celestial choirs beckoning above and the jaws of hell gaping below, this apocalyptic prairie becomes the setting for the final showdown between the diametrically opposed forces of good and evil. Even the title cards diagram the conflict for us, with church and saloon squaring off from opposing sides of the frame. As their fortress of faith is laid siege to the pacifist churchgoers dig in rather than turning the other cheek, in a valiant last ditch effort to reclaim this charred, desecrated devil’s domain in the name of the most high. But undeterred, the townsfolk push their way inside nonetheless, toppling over pew and pulpit in their haste to apply pitch to the flammable pine board.
August’s camera is placed on the inside looking out, silhouetting the roiling mob, a surging sea of humanity, against the exterior light. And in another great shot, he impressively pans up from the bottom of the church to the top of the steeple in one smooth movement, to focus on the profane image of a burning cross, included for shock value, as the roaring flames whip this way and that. Fire pouring out from every nook and cranny to engulf the structure, the one sign of God’s grace on this otherwise spiritually barren plain is left a smoldering ruin.
Focusing on an overt, secular theme, Hell’s Hinges is rife with biblical parables, complete with allusions to everything from Sodom and Gomorrah and the Exodus, to Noah’s Ark. While the devout parishioners are building this testament to their faith for instance, the townsfolk gather to mock them much as Noah was heckled until the sprinklers were turned on. As we know from Sunday school, disparaging God-fearing folk in this fashion never turns out well for the disdainful. When the Christian pilgrims are driven out, their “broken flight into the desert,” intentionally evokes the Exodus of the Israelites. Photographed at a distance as they cross the sandy dunes, their lengthening shadows are cast in such a way it appears as though they were traversing salt flats.
Blaze himself will recall Moses, also once affiliated with the oppressors of God’s chosen people, who then became their prophet and leader, and later the finger of the Lord himself, smiting their enemies with both pillar of fire and burning bush. At one point, the gathered townsfolk part like the Red Sea to allow the church goers to approach the saloon and collect their fallen leader, while the initial Sunday service is held in a makeshift barn, putting one in mind of the nativity and Christ in his manger. Though it’s the decadent Eastern city that’s initially depicted as a corrupting influence, Hell’s Hinges reverses this conventional dynamic by conceiving the socially and morally abandoned frontier town evangelically, as another Sodom and Gomorrah. And fittingly for a film with religion at its roots, by picture’s end it has assumed the proportions of biblical prophecy, with Hell’s Hinges razed from the face of the earth, divine judgment on it.
To heighten tension, the film repeatedly builds toward confrontations between the forces of the church and the resident town rowdies and roustabouts, without anything coming of them. For instance Blaze, charged with driving off the new minister, practices some fancy shooting on a tin can and, egged on by the other cowboys, vows to make it clear they don’t want his kind around. We’re led to anticipate a gunfight, and though one of the churchgoers reaches for his pistol, expecting trouble as Blaze stalks up, this preliminary confrontation fizzles out like a stick of wet dynamite upon his meeting Faith, leaving viewers hanging like the eager spectators on screen, who disperse in frustration after having gotten themselves all riled up for a big showdown.
When the heretical saloon herd interrupts church service, whooping it up by playing crude instruments, dancing, carousing and popping off guns, trying to provoke the God fearing worshipers to violence, another intense altercation appears in the offing. But instead, Faith defiantly lifts her voice up to heaven and the purity of her hymn works a miracle, stirring something ineffable in the souls of those present, leading a remorseful dance hall girl to break down in tears and instigating Blaze to put a stop to the ruckus. By repeatedly leading audiences to expect an exchange of rattling gunfire then failing to follow through, we’re left on edge. Throughout, Hart increases our anticipation this way, building an accumulative effect, a powder keg waiting to pop. So when all the amassed tensions finally reach critical mass, they explode in a dazzling display of pyrotechnical fireworks worthy of the fourth of July, complete with sparklers, pinwheels, sunbursts and supernovas, the town erupting in a flame swept inferno, a tornado of fire worthy of its name. Hell’s Hinges approaches truly epic dimensions near the end here, Hart “withdrawing all restraints” during the thunderous climax “to slam over one of the most powerful and spectacular action sequences that he ever created” (Franklin 24). The townsfolk having torched the church, he returns the favor by burning down the saloon, igniting the purifying flame that will level the town to its foundations, incinerating this affront in the eyes of God.
‘Striking down upon them with great vengeance and furious anger’ (Ezekiel 25:17), God through the agency of Blaze, wipes out wicked mankind not with a great flood, but with fire this time. With smoke billowing upward like spewing ash, the edifice of the triangular-shaped church building bends and sags, on the verge of caving in on itself, looking for all the world like Vesuvius erupting. And as in most disaster films, a genre which Ince had done his part to pioneer with his popular The Wrath of the Gods two years earlier, the climactic conflagration is played for more than simple spectacle. It’s being used symbolically, natural disaster as divine judgment, God’s will made manifest.
As Blaze tells the corralled cowboys in the saloon he’s setting alight, “You boys oughtn’t to mind a little heat like this. It’s nothin’ to what you all got coming’ later.” While the dance hall girls stream out the back, he corners the crowd of quaking men, herding them together and singlehandedly buffaloing them across the frame, apparently intending to have them keep the old town company by burning them alive, only at the very last minute stepping aside to let them surge past. With shafts of sunlight streaming through the thick smog in a spectrally ghastly manner, all hell breaks loose, the fire spreading so fast that the shadows of “maddened cowboys racing through the flames, (are) almost like vague demons tortured in some primitive hell” (The Western 91).
There’s certainly an awe-inspiring feeling of divine retribution inherent in this ending, which the New York Press described as giving “a truly Gehenna-like finish” to proceedings as the fire rages out of control, consuming the entire town. Having become a flaming cauldron it resembles, as intended, the landscape of hell itself, Dante’s Inferno. Cascading upon one another with nary a moment to catch one’s breath, these final, fast moving scenes of panic and confusion, “in which all of Inceville goes up in flames” (Franklin 23) are the film’s crowning achievement (“Hell’s Crown.”).
So admirably cut and directed are they in fact, Hart swinging his camera like a lasso to round up shots of devastation, “it is astounding that his tremendous talent as a director has gone unrecognized for so long” (Franklin 23). As Everson points out, “He is regarded as a “personality” along with Fairbanks, Valentino, and Pickford, and almost never as a creative crafts man in his own right,” stating, “Undoubtedly Hart’s enormous popularity… tended to make people overlook his directorial ability” (The Western 91).
Credit for Hell’s Hinges’ direction has always been suspect. While Hart himself has generally been acknowledged as head honcho behind the camera, in The War, the West and the Wilderness, Kevin Brownlow quotes a Moving Picture World article revealing the star was removed from directorial duties during filming and that Ince himself actually shot the uncharacteristically spectacular fire sequence. But “While direction is (officially) credited to the relatively obscure Charles Swickard, it was well known that regardless of the name on the credits, Hart himself was the real auteur of his films, the force of the actor’s personality shaping his Western vehicles more strongly than the imprint of any individual director.
“Hell’s Hinges is living proof of what an accomplished director he was. The camera placement, the simple yet effective symbolism, and the flair for spectacle, plus the real “feel” for the dusty, unglamorized West, should have earned Hart a reputation as one of the great directors” (The Western 91). “While Griffith stood alone as a directorial giant in 1915-16,” according to American Silent Film (247), “Certainly Hart, on the strength of his directorial performance here, is entitled to rate as one of the leaders among the rivals to Griffith, lower down on the artistic scale though they were” (Franklin 23).